“From Vision to Inheritance”: “Nixon in China” at the Opéra Bastille Paris


Opera, U.S.-China relations, Modernism, John Adams, Alice Goodman

Nixon in China, Opera, John Adams
Paris, Opéra Bastille, march 25th- April 16th, 2023


President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China was perceived at the time as an epoch-making event. Diplomatic relations between China and the United States had been suspended in the wake of Mao’s 1949 victory against Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek),[1] who still had U.S. backing despite his obvious inability to regain control of the mainland. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War had come to a diplomatic and military impasse; having taken over from Lyndon B. Johnson whose presidency was arguably destroyed by the Tet Offensive (1967), Nixon felt under pressure to end the hostilities. His bold plan to strike up an alliance with the People’s Republic of China came at a time when Mao was eager to regain the upper hand in the disastrous aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, which had started in 1966 and had caused the rise of a radical faction led by Jiang Qing (Chiang Ch’ing), Mao’s wife. A diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries was the logical next step: it was seen by the U.S. as a way of tipping the regional balance of power in its favour by driving a wedge between the PRC and the USSR, whose attitude towards the Maoist regime oscillated between lukewarm support and overt hostility; and it promised to end China’s decades of isolation while shoring up Mao’s authority against internal dissent. Carefully engineered behind the scenes by then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s trip to Beijing none the less came as a shock to the international community ; the unlikely spectacle of a Republican president shaking hands with Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), the Premier of Communist China, drew gasps from global audiences when it was televised on February 21st , 1972 – a show of goodwill meant to erase the humiliation suffered by the Chinese at the 1954 Geneva Conference where Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had refused to greet Zhou. In the short run, Nixon’s encounter with Mao led to few tangible results apart from a vaguely worded communiqué, but its cultural impact was considerable. Mainland China had been out of bounds to Americans – indeed to most Westerners – since the 1949 Maoist takeover, and the bewildering news that filtered out of the country at the height of the Cultural Revolution had given the impression that the PRC was radically alien and incomprehensible; in a speech given a few days before his flight to Beijing, Nixon tellingly compared himself to the Apollo 11 astronauts, like an explorer planning another Moon landing. The new spirit of détente finally permitted American artists to visit the country and interact with their Chinese counterparts. Eugene Ormandy, then music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, toured China in 1973; on his return, he introduced American audiences to the new repertoire stemming from the Cultural Revolution, particularly the Yellow River Concerto which he recorded the following year with pianist Daniel Epstein. American critics wrote scathingly of what they took to be third-rate imitations of late Romanticism, but Chinese audiences were much taken with what they heard, and Western art music has remained wildly popular in China ever since.

When director Peter Sellars came up with the idea of writing an opera about these events over a decade later, Nixon’s public relations triumph had been overshadowed in the public mind by the Watergate debacle, which led to his resignation in 1974. Meanwhile, Mao’s death (1976) and the end of the Cultural Revolution had significantly transformed China; along with other members of the Gang of Four, Jiang Qing had received a death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment (she committed suicide in 1991). This raised the important question of tone. It would have been easy to write a satirical piece about a group of discredited politicans shamelessly preening in the limelight, but composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman were adamant that they wanted to lift the story to another plane, treating their characters as archetypes of the human condition rather than caricatures with merely topical significance. Despite their youth and inexperience – Adams was thirty-seven when he stared working on Nixon in China, Goodman was twenty-six, and neither had yet written anything for the operatic stage – their collaboration resulted in a brilliant heroic piece which bears little resemblance to the “CNN opera” for which it was initially mistaken. A PhD student at Cambridge University, Goodman had been at work on a dissertation on the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Nashe, and her beautifully crafted libretto – one of the masterpieces of the genre, and fully comparable to W. H. Auden’s and Chester Kallman’s The Rake’s Progress (1951) – betrays her familiarity with Early Modern literature ranging from Elizabethan drama to Metaphysical poetry; like the late Geoffrey Hill, whom she married in 1987, she took a keen interest in the writings of Charles Péguy and G. K. Chesterton, some of whose aphorisms incongruously find their way into Mao’s cryptic utterances. Trained in the Minimalist tradition, Adams was increasingly dissatisfied with what he felt to be its limitations; his recent compositions – such as Harmonium (1980), a three-part choral symphony based on poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, and Harmonielehre (1984), an ironically lush and tonal tribute to Arnold Schoenberg’s music theory textbook – suggested that he was much more interested in reviving large-scale musical forms and revisiting the late Romantic canon while building on the work of the musical avant-garde. Together, they conceived a three-act historical opera whose overall structure would not have surprised a 19th-century audience; it includes arias, ensembles, grand choral passages, orchestral interludes, and even the obligatory ballet when the American delegation attend a performance of The Red Detachment of Women. The huge orchestra is alive with a rhythmic energy which owes as much to Stravinsky as to the legacy of Minimalism, combined with remarkable melodic invention and a wide range of tone colours reminiscent of Wagner and Richard Strauss (the “Sword Motif” first heard in Das Rheingold makes a pointed appearance as Nixon exits Air Force One, and a quotation from Salome conjures up a surprisingly decadent mood when the protagonist of The Red Detachment of Women finds herself stranded on a tropical island). Altogether, Nixon in China is not the epitome of postmodernism for which some critics have taken it, but a clear forerunner of what Marjorie Perloff calls “twenty-first century” (or “second-wave”) “modernism,” in which “the possibilities of chant and charm, zaum and word magic, […] are once again invoked.”[2] Irony there most certainly is, along with verbal and musical humour, but the opera’s dominant characteristic is its deep seriousness of purpose, and while Chou En-lai’s final aria includes a reference to “cage-birds” – a nod to an earlier American composer with a keen interest in Chinese culture – none of it is “for the birds” since it appears haunted by a near-mystical premonition of transcendence, as in a strangely inverted Pentecost: “Outside this room the chill of grace/ Lies heavy on the morning grass.”

Since its 1987 premiere, Nixon in China has worked its way into the standard operatic repertoire, particularly in America where it has frequently been revived (the original Sellars production was reprised at the Met in 2011 and later released on DVD). Europe has clearly followed suit, as the current Paris Opéra production attests. Indeed, the opera’s French production history is particularly telling: it was first seen in 1991 at Bobigny’s MC93 (a highly regarded youth and community centre with a strong interest in the performing arts), then revived in 2012 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, before making its appearance on France’s premier operatic stage on March 25th, 2023. Casting choices reflect the rapid canonisation of a work that can now be regarded as a classic of twentieth-century opera. At the 1987 premiere in Houston, Texas, the roles of Nixon and his wife Pat were sung by talented but relatively unknown singers: James Maddalena had been associated for over a decade with regional companies such as Boston Lyric Opera but had not yet risen to national prominence, and Carolann Page was mostly known for her appearances in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. By contrast, the 2023 Paris production has world-renowned baritone Thomas Hampson and soprano Renée Fleming in the leading roles, both of them particular favourites of French audiences after long and distinguished careers spanning several decades. In the meantime, the rapid march of history has inevitably affected the way in which Adams’s first opera is received. Formerly regarded as America’s most questionable and scandal-prone president, Nixon no longer holds that dubious honour in the post-Trump era, and the parlous state of Chinese-American relations now makes the early 1970s appear like a long-lost age of innocence. The once controversial topic of Nixon’s China policy no longer arouses strong feelings as the events of 1972 have receded into the past, and 2023 audiences are unlikely to feel a personal connection of any kind to characters whose public careers ended long before their time. Overall, Nixon in China can no longer claim the allure of the contemporary; it is neither new enough to shock listeners unused to Adams’s musical language nor topical enough to comment directly on current events; instead, it now has the kind of landmark status that we associate with the great Wagnerian music dramas of which the composer is obviously so fond, and it falls to the interpreters to reinvent its connections with the world we presently live in, with its very different challenges and opportunities. As Valentina Carrasco’s production attests, this can be liberating for the performers who no longer feel compelled to recreate Nixon’s visit to Beijing with the painstaking attention to detail that was such a striking feature of the original production. As Renée Fleming told Ben Miller, “We all know what happened, we’re familiar with the piece, and now we can think about it in a different way.”[3]In the opening scene, audiences no longer see a realistic depiction of Air Force One; instead, they are shown an enormous black eagle which simultaneously recalls the national emblem of the United States and introduces the bird or flying motif that subtly runs through the entire libretto: as Neil Armstrong famously said, “The Eagle has landed,” or very nearly so.

Carrasco’s staging is not meant to illuminate history; it assumes a certain degree of familiarity with it – much as productions of Verdi’s Don Carlo presuppose that modern audiences know about the Spanish Inquisition – so that history can become metaphor, as when she evokes the colourful episode known as “ping-pong diplomacy” to illustrate the give-and-take between two cultures, represented by rival teams whose red and blue uniforms eerily recall current American politics. At the same time, history is explicitly invoked to put the opera itself into perspective, like a cultural artifact whose meaning can only be revealed by careful contextualisation. In Act 1, Scene 2, the split-level stage shows both Mao’s private library, where he politely receives his American visitors, and a fiery underworld where opponents are beaten up (or worse) while politically suspect books and musical instruments are cynically destroyed: Mao’s impressive stacks are no more than trompe l’oeil as the only book that matters in 1970s China is the Little Red Book. Later, in Act 2, the performance of The Red Detachment of Women, a Maoist ballet (here rewritten as an opera), is accompanied by projections of archival photographs recounting the persecution of political opponents during the Cultural Revolution, interspersed with footage of the Vietnam War. Later still, the interval between Acts 2 and 3 is replaced by a lengthy excerpt from the 1979 documentary about Isaac Stern’s visit to China,[4] in which an elderly Chinese musician tells a harrowing tale of brutality and cultural suppression at the hands of the Red Guards. None of these choices is anticipated by the libretto or score. To be sure, Adams and Goodman had no intention of defending the Nixon administration – Henry Kissinger bears the brunt of the attack as he is reduced to a grotesque caricature, a stock operatic villain who disappears into the bathroom in Act 3, never to be seen again. Likewise, they clearly refuse to be complicit with the crimes of the Maoist regime. Goodman’s rewriting of the Red Detachment libretto comically emphasises its lurid sensationalism, near-pornographic treatment of sexuality, and overall tastelessness, while Adams’s setting pokes fun at the clumsy, overblown music; the performance denegerates into chaos when Chiang Ch’ing interrupts it with a demented rant about herself and her political ambitions. However, the point of the satire is that The Red Detachment of Women is a ludicrous piece of kitsch – the deadliest sin of all according to the Modernist worldview – and that it collapses of its own accord under the weight of its aesthetic contradictions, not because it is toxic propaganda. The footage of Isaac Stern interacting with Chinese musicians complicates this point by emphasizing that, for all its claims of ideological purity, the Cultural Revolution was deeply ambivalent about Western influence: the extent to which European-style art music was suppressed at the time indicates that it was already an object of deep fascination, and Maoist “model works” such as the Red Detachment of Women and the Yellow River Concerto openly emulate late Romantic Russian composers in a calculated challenge to the USSR’s perceived artistic supremacy. However, Adams and Goodman could not possibly have been aware in 1987 of the extent to which the Chinese approach to musical aesthetics was influenced by questions of cultural nationalism, many of them hotly debated many years before Mao’s rise to power, as this point did not attract critical attention until the late 1990s, long after the Houston premiere. In this instance, Carrasco identifies one of the blind spots of the original work – one for which its authors cannot be blamed as it merely reveals the limitations of the historical knowledge available at the time – and seeks to correct the resulting imbalances by resorting to overt didacticism. Thereby, she runs the risk of taking the Red Detachment parody rather too seriously and, in particular, of obscuring its meta-theatrical role, which is crucial as it functions as a clear example of what not to do in an opera which, like the Maoist “model works,” tries to devise an appropriate way of dealing artistically with questions of cultural identity. (Having Pat and Richard Nixon leaf feverishly through the Opéra’s Nixon in China programme as they struggle to make sense of the plot is a nice touch, but one that is lost on a theatrical audience in a large house such as the Opéra Bastille.)

Fortunately, these are momentary lapses, and the production as a whole does come across as “a bit madcap […] in a good way,” to quote Renée Fleming. Pat Nixon’s Act 2 aria, “This Is Prophetic,” is a particularly delightful moment as the First Lady is joined on stage by a giant Chinese dragon which eventually lies down at her feet, charmed by the creamy splendour of Fleming’s voice. The sympathetic reinvention of Mrs. Nixon as an inspired poet gifted with visionary powers is already a striking feature of Goodman’s libretto, but Carrasco takes the process to its logical conclusion by turning the stoic housewife into a playful, flirtatious magician who, like Rossini’s Armida (another one of Fleming’s roles), cavorts with mythological creatures in an enchanted garden. Earlier in Act 2, during the visit to the glass factory, a transparent curtain studded with shiny baubles – or are they ping-pong balls? – descends shortly before Pat’s optimistic profession of faith, “I treat each day/ Like Christmas”: the trite phrase is treated as a recipe for visual magic. Overall, with its blend of humour, slapstick, and fantasy bordering on magical realism, the production bears the hallmark of La Fura dels Baus, the Catalan theatrical group with which Valentina Carrasco was associated for twenty years before turning her attention to opera. The Hispanic influence is particularly welcome since it recalls Adams’s growing interest in Spanish-speaking cultures, as evidenced by later works such as El Niño (2000), whose bilingual libretto heavily borrows from Latin American poetry, and A Flowering Tree (2006), which is based on a legend from South India but was developed in close collaboration with Venezuelan musicians. For all its concern with cultural otherness, Nixon in China largely inhabits a bipolar world where China and the United States consistently occupy centre stage; it tells a tale of Americans abroad in which foreign travel serves in part as an opportunity to look at America from afar, as when Nixon spends his first few minutes on Chinese soil fantasising about the TV audience back home. Carrasco’s recognisably Hispanic take on the opera thus introduces a third-party perspective, as the original Peter Sellars production, with its heavy reliance on Americana, most emphatically did not. Carrasco’s Nixon in China is a retelling of the story for a globalised, largely non-American audience for whom the familiar narrative of Nixon’s trip to China has become “mythology,” “a constellation of communally shared perceptions and responses in much the same way that the mythological lore […] of preindustrialized societies was a symbolic expression of the collective experience of a tribe,” to quote the composer.[5] This mythology, however, no longer reflects the exclusive interests of “a  [single] tribe, a city-state, or […] a nation”; instead, the emphasis falls on the pluralistic nature of a community which does not insist on uniformity as a condition for sharing, as in a Benjaminian “constellation.”

Musically speaking, the Paris production is hard to beat. In addition to Fleming and Hampson – with his beautifully sung and dramatically convincing portrayal of Nixon – the very strong cast includes Kathleen Kim as Chiang Ch’ing, John Matthew Myers as Mao, and Xiaomeng Zhang as Chou En-lai. A veteran of the 2011 New York production, Kim shines in the dramatic coloratura of her Act 2 aria while doing justice to the surprisingly sensual and emotional music Adams lavishes on her character in Act 3; hers is a complex, unpredictable Chiang Ch’ing, an “unknown” woman whose repressed humanity shines through despite her terrifying bursts of murderous rage. Myers cuts an improbably athletic figure as Mao when he participates in an impromptu game of table tennis at the end of Act 1 or indulges in a bit of dirty dancing in Act 2, and Xiaomen Zhang brings the opera to an eerie, subdued close with a moving performance of his final aria. However, the chief glory of the performance was Gustavo Dudamel’s masterly conducting of a difficult and multifaceted score: his is undoubtedly the best orchestral reading of this opera so far, not excepting the composer’s own. A longtime collaborator of John Adams, and the current music director of the Paris Opéra, Dudamel is certainly responsible for bringing Nixon in China to the Opéra Bastille, and he deserves much of the credit for what Adams himself, having attended the premiere, hailed as an unqualified success.


[1] Thoughout this review, the Pinyin transliteration of Chinese names is used to refer to real-life (historical) figures. Alice Goodman’s libretto uses the Wade-Giles system; her spelling has been retained whenever characters from the opera are mentioned.

[2] Marjorie Perloff, Twenty-First Century Modernism. The « New » Poetics (Oxford : Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 153.

[3] Ben Miller, “Renée Fleming Adds a New Role to Her Repertoire: Pat Nixon,” The New York Times, March 24, 2023.

[4] Murray Lerner, From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, 1979.

[5] John Adams, “Doctor Atomic and His Gadget,” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Yale University, Whitney Humanities Center, 2009, 45.

Mathieu Duplay is Professor of American Literature at Université Paris Cité (formerly Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7). His latest book, Les Oeuvres scéniques de John Adams: l’opéra et les frontières du littéraire, was published by Honoré Champion (Paris) in 2023. Mathieu Duplay currently serves as President of the French Association for American Studies (AFEA).


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